Making Sense of the Up-for-Grabs Eastern Conference

Ethan Sherwood Strauss@SherwoodStraussNBA Lead WriterNovember 16, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 02:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket against Ronnie Brewer #11 of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on November 2, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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The NBA feels wide open this year, which probably means that we'll just see a repeat of OKC Thunder versus the Miami Heat in the Finals. But no matter, let us marvel at the current state of things. The Eastern Conference, which seemed hard to figure in the preseason, is even more murky than previously thought. 

This is what happens when a scenario like, "The New York Knicks have outplayed everyone" comes to fruition. The Knicks have yet to lose a game. More importantly, they've looked fantastic on their undefeated streak.

The other muddying factor is that the Indiana Pacers lost Danny Granger. Without him, they've looked utterly lost at sea, and thus, really hard to handicap going forward. For now, here is how I'd rank the East—while acknowledging that I could be slighting the new-look Knicks somewhat. 


1. Miami Heat

Yes, their defense has been hideous and Dwyane Wade can't stay healthy. They also have no above average big man, save for Chris Bosh

But it's going to take a loooooong Knicks winning streak to displace Miami from the top of my Eastern Conference rankings.

Even with the Knicks currently undefeated, would any sane observer choose them to beat Miami in the playoffs? That might be less of a rhetorical question as the season goes on, but the Heat still have LeBron James, Chris Bosh and an eventually healthy Dwyane Wade.

Also, the memory of last year's five-game series between New York and Miami hasn't faded. In that brief encounter, the Heat took Knick three-point shooters like Steve Novak and snuffed them out. The burden of proof is on New York to prove they're the better team. Even with Miami's recent flaws, it's hard to see how a team with this much firepower won't get it together. 


2. New York Knicks

OK New York, we're taking you seriously. A road win over the San Antonio Spurs is about as good a statement as any. The Knicks are melding Tyson Chandler's all-encompassing defense, with an offense, recently supercharged by Carmelo Anthony's move to the power forward position.

When Carmelo Anthony is at the 4-spot, the Knicks have four shooters with which to surround Melo, and often a slow defender on Anthony. It's been an inexorable offensive strategy in the early going.The Knicks have hit 71 out of 152 made threes this year.

Obviously, the shooting will calm down some. But a run like this shows how devastating they could be in a playoff series. In the mean time, all hail J.R. Smith God Mode. 


3. Boston Celtics

Wait, where are the Brooklyn Nets? Aren't they 5-2? Well, Brooklyn has played five home games and barely beat a Rondo-less Boston. Let's have some patience before the anointment starts.

The Celtics have been uneven in the early going. They have defended sloppily, rebounded poorly and looked, at times, offensively stagnant.

Still, this is the team that frequently hibernates in the regular season, only to look strong come playoff time. Unless they're completely disintegrating, it's best not to count Boston out. They also had an impressive away win over the next team listed.


4. Milwaukee Bucks

At a certain point, we'll have to give up and admit that Milwaukee is good. The Bucks are 5-2 with a plus-3.6 point differential. Brandon Jennings has been excellent in the early going, similar to how he started off last year before getting dinged up down the road. 

While I'm impressed with Jennings' early playmaking, I'm more enamored with Milwaukee's bench defense. Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh form an all-enveloping rim protection tandem—they could easily be this year's version of last year's Chicago bench mob. If the Bucks can get anything from the struggling Ersan Ilyasova, they might just surprise everybody and claim a top-three seed.